Failed Democratization in the Arab World

Failed Democratization in the Arab World

Because al-Qaeda’s ideology is rooted in an extreme version of Islam, post-September 11 discourse has focused mostly on ways that Islam may, in certain circumstances, give rise to bin Laden-like phenomena. This sort of approach is both facile and wrong, on factual as well as normative grounds. It leads either to the demonization of Islam and Muslims or to their portrayal as the archetypal Other. It also diminishes the chances of finding credible allies for the West within moderate Muslim nations and may give rise to an Islamic defensiveness that will only intensify alienation between the Occident and Orient (if one may still use these antiquated and politically incorrect terms). Moreover, the facts do not uphold the claim that Islam, democracy, and modernization are incompatible.

As we look at Muslim countries, Turkey is perhaps the most interesting case. The Turkish political system is deeply flawed in many ways, especially regarding important issues of human and minority rights. Yet in the last eighty years, Turkey has undergone fundamental change. It secularized its political system, established a robust multiparty parliamentary life, and held relatively free elections. There is a free press (although with serious limitations when it comes to Kurdish issues). The army’s role as guarantor of Kemalist secularism is surely problematic, but it is something quite different from countries ruled by simple military dictatorships. I don’t mean to justify military intervention in the Turkish political process, yet this distinction is of some importance. The Turkish army hasn’t taken political power in order to stay in political power. Furthermore, Turkey’s economic development has been remarkable (despite recent difficulties). Recent constitutional reforms, especially those regarding Kurdish rights, are further encouraging. The fact that the European Union is ready to consider Ankara for membership, despite reservations, suggests how far this country, which straddles two continents, has come. Islamic extremism is a problem, yet it is posed within a basically modern and fairly liberal society. The recent parliamentary crisis does not change this situation in any basic way.

Indonesia and Bangladesh, despite their differences, are populous Muslim societies that have attempted (Indonesia) or maintained (Bangladesh) multiparty systems. There is a relatively free press in both of them, despite difficult socio-economic conditions. Even Pakistan, currently under military rule, has experimented at various times with a multiparty system.

Iran should convince even skeptics that an Islamic republic has the potential to move in a democratic direction. This regime, which had its start in a bloody revolution, steeped in an intolerant version of Shia Islam, has begun to evolve in a more promising direction. Its institutional structure should not be stereotyped, despite political ups and downs. There are parliamentar...